Called to art ‘for social change,’ bag designer found inspiration in Liberia
What started as a hobby morphed into a thriving business for entrepreneur Marit Woods, owner of ARWAY bags and accessories. Her business recently departed from the Mall of America’s Community Commons and is now available online.
Woods, originally from Liberia, came to Minnesota over 20 years ago. She went to Arlington High School and graduated from the University of Minnesota. She also attended graduate school in Vermont.
“I started ARWAY in Liberia [in 2010], and I was doing comedy shows,” said Woods. There she began designing her signature ARWAY bags and accessories. Woods also developed the exquisite molds for the products.
Woods emphasized that her passions called her to “art for social change, and that came with my youth studies degree—so I started ARWAY in Liberia.” Woods initially made the bags for herself, but her hobby manifested into a business. The feedback and support she received were outstanding, which also led to higher demand.
In 2019, Woods officially launched the ARWAY bag and accessory enterprise in Minnesota. She said, “I utilized my own funding, and my lovely aunt invested $300 as well. Over the years, pretty much I’ve been utilizing the profit to regenerate the business.” She also uses part of the proceeds to offer zero-interest loans to the individuals she works with.
The ARWAY bags and accessories are truly one of a kind. A variety of designs incorporate luxurious Ankara wax fabric, genuine leather and wood. Every bag is crafted with care and possesses its own unique style.
The product line is very popular. “Because we are growing and there is a demand, I plan on getting investors,” explained Woods.
This company values social responsibility. When customers make a purchase, $1 will be donated to Laugh Out Loud Liberia and STRIVE, an after-school program geared towards enriching the lives of youth.
ARWAY bags enable the owner to maintain a connection with her country of Liberia. She said, “As much as I want to leave because I have a child, I have a husband, my connection to Liberia is so ingrained that I don’t want to lose that while I’m here because ultimately I want to go back there and live.”
Woods spoke about the ARWAY team that includes a number of highly skilled artisans: “I knew the individuals were good at what they did; the craftsmanship is amazing. And because I have trained them in sort of what I wanted in the product, it just worked out pretty well.”
As a social entrepreneur, Woods uses her business to enhance the quality of life for others, especially her team. “The business provides a livelihood for a lot of people that I engage with on the ground,” Woods said.
The local enterprise is successfully providing economic opportunities. “I have seen the individuals I work with excel in other ways—but because we don’t have the environment to excel and access to market to these products,” the business is only offering a limited number of products.
Woods said balance is important in business. “For the last few years we’ve been scaling on a minuscule level…so we went from 15 to 20 pieces. Now we’re doing 40 pieces.” The demand for products usually increases during the holidays.
“As a small business,” Woods noted, “of course we want to grow. I want to be very aware of how we grow, because we do have environmental consequences, because we have wood embedded into [the products], and skin as well. So our growth has to be a little different than a normal manufacturer.”
Like many local businesses, the COVID pandemic slowed business down. However, “We were lucky when the Mall [Mall of America Community Commons] reached out and gave us the space for nine months. This allowed us to really see what the possibilities were outside online purchase,” Woods said.
Woods started working with the MOA during the holiday season in November 2020. She was only supposed to set up for two weeks for Christmas. The business was later offered a longer contract from March to September 2021.
Recently the ARWAY business departed the MOA’s Community Commons, but the products are available online. “I’m primarily focusing on my online presence,” Woods said.
When asked to share parting words of advice for youth or budding entrepreneurs, Woods said, “If you have an inclination about anything and you believe that this is something that could make a difference or that would impact lives, I believe you should be persistent and keep pursuing that.”
She added, “Try to surround yourself with positive-minded people—and be flexible.”
For more info, visit www.arwaybags.com.